Monthly Archives: March 2013

Half The Sky

half the sky cover

“This book will change your life.”  One of my former high school students posted that endorsement on Facebook after reading Half the Sky by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. When a friend said, “You will love this book MaryLou,” I had no choice but to buy it. And they were right. Half the Sky is an enthralling read and makes you realize that by empowering women we may be able to change our world. 

Naxi singers Yunnan province China

The title of the book comes from a statement Mao Zedong once made, “Women hold up half the sky.”  Mao’s reign in China resulted in many disastrous consequences for it’s citizens but one thing he did recognize was the importance of women making a major contribution to the nation on all fronts. So he set out to liberate women from foot binding, arranged marriage and the concubine system and he allowed them into the work place. Many argue it was this liberation of women that led to China’s phenomenal economic success.

Woman selling clothing in Bali

In fact that’s the theme of Kristof and WuDunn’s book. When you educate women and allow them to become active participants in the economy of a country you immediately raise the standard of living in that country and improve its financial health. You also improve its chances for peace and see a decline in all types of violence.

Those aren’t just inspiring ideas; they are realities that are backed up in the book Half the Sky with dozens and dozens of personal stories and extensive footnotes citing the meticulous research the authors have done.

Jamaican farmer named Violet

Kristoff and WuDunn are married and have three children. Separately, together, and as a family, they have traveled the world to see first hand how women are treated inhumanely in so many places but also to see how women with courage, idealism and determination are changing things for the better.

Half the Sky is not an easy book to read. It is chilling to learn about women who are the victims of honor killings, female genital mutilation, rape as an act of war, child prostitution and legal physical punishment by their husbands.

With my professional golf caddy in Bali

It is also rewarding to read about how starting a business, getting a good job, having an education, or receiving support and affirmation from other women can change women’s lives and the lives of their families.

The book points out the ineffectiveness of some international aid organizations. Their workers drive around in SUVs and live in fancy houses. They administer funds that do little to change women’s lives, but when local women are consulted and empowered to be leaders for change themselves great things can happen.

Some solutions WuDunn and Kristoff offer are unorthodox but have proven effective. They endorse a global drive to iodize salt because research shows female fetuses are particularly prone to impaired brain development if their mothers’ bodies lack iodine. Introducing television into rural communities has helped women see they don’t need to be subservient to men, that they can be successful and expect to be treated with respect.

School girls in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Simple things like buying school uniforms, de-worming girls, paying for school lunches and providing supplies for young women when they menstruate, have proven to dramatically improve school attendance for girls in developing countries. Helping a woman start a small business can often revolutionize her life.

Woman in Jaipur

Half the Sky’s greatest strength may be the fact that it offers suggestions for immediate actions those of us who have been blessed with a more prosperous life can take to help women around the world.

Half the Sky has become a PBS television documentary and they have a website where you can learn more. 

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Some Mennonites- Not All of Them

Saturday  in the Winnipeg Free Press John Stackhouse wrote an article about why Mennonites oppose our province’s proposed anti-bullying legislation Bill 18. I wish he’d said ‘some’ Mennonites because in fact many Mennonites support Bill 18. (For my international readers controversy about this bill stems in large part from its provisions to protect members of the LGBTQ community in schools from bullying.)

     The Carillon is the local paper in Steinbach, the Mennonite community at the center of the controversy over Bill 18. I’ve checked the letters to the editor there and in the Free Press over the last few weeks and quite a number of people with Mennonite surnames have written in support of the bill or the LGBQT community. I don’t know them all personally but I do know some attend Mennonite churches and at least one or two are Mennonite pastors. The chair of the local school board is a Mennonite pastor and he has made it clear the school division will implement the measures outlined in Bill 18.

     Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg has a Gay Straight Alliance on their campus and Canadian Mennonite University has a student- initiated group called Safe Haven that provides a place for supporters of the LGBQT community to engage in dialogue. I know of Mennonite churches that state on their websites they welcome LGBQT people to attend their worship services and participate in the life of their church.

      After doing some internet research I confirmed that both the representatives on Steinbach City Council who chose to vote against the council’s request to ask the Minister of Education to review Bill 18 are active members of Mennonite churches.

      The March 16th issue of the Winnipeg Free Press included an interview with a courageous young man from Steinbach with a Mennonite name, who stood outside the meeting place during the February information session on Bill 18, and handed out pamphlets in support of the bill. Another Steinbach young man who also has a Mennonite surname has had his story in all the major Canadian newspapers.  He wants to start a Gay Straight Alliance at the Steinbach high school. 

       I think John Stackhouse was making far too sweeping a statement when he talked about  ‘Mennonites opposing Bill 18’. Not all of them do.

      I’m usually proud to be a Mennonite. I list myself as one on my Facebook page. I write for Mennonite periodicals. I’m a member of a Mennonite church and volunteer for Mennonite organizations. I am proud of many things Mennonites have done, and are doing, but I’m not proud of the opposition to Bill 18 or the lack of support it suggests for the LGBQT community.

 If, as I believe, people don’t have a choice about their sexual orientation, it just seems right for followers of Jesus Christ to respond with acceptance especially when we know the rate of suicide is higher among LGBTQ youth. People who have a LGBQT lifestyle do nothing to harm anyone else, and members of the LGBQT community make valuable contributions to society that enrich all of our lives. 

    Some people of faith who object to the bill say they care about the LGBQT community but they don’t support the bill because it is unclear, poorly written and may impinge on people’s religious freedoms. Let’s be honest about this. If the bill didn’t mention anything about protecting those of varying sexual orientations no religious group would have given it a second thought or look.

      At one time the Christian church supported slavery and women not having civil or human rights. We claimed Biblical support for those viewpoints but eventually changed our minds. I think it is time to change our attitudes towards the LGBTQ community as well.  We need to let people know Mennonites have more than one opinion on this issue.

      Steinbach’s Southland Church perhaps unintentionally seems to have become the most publicized religious voice for the feelings of the community, yet a search of their website for the word Mennonite produces zero results. They can’t be the primary spokespersons for Mennonites.

      John Stackhouse probably needs to write another article in the Winnipeg Free Press about why Mennonites support Bill 18 and the LGBQT community because many Mennonites do. Their voices need to be heard as well. 

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This morning Dave and I attended Hope Mennonite Church. We heard the children’s story The Quiltmaker’s Journey. The tale of a woman who makes a risky journey outside her safe, home community to share her gift of quilting with people who need it; fit in well with the sermon based on Philippians 2, which encouraged us to empty ourselves by pursuing our passions, caring for others even if it might seem risky, and obeying God by sharing our love. 

In the afternoon we went to see the play Halo written by Josh MacDonald. It was directed by a former colleague of ours Ray Cloutier and starred Alayna Fender, the daughter of our friends.  Alayna gave an excellent performance. She made us cry and laugh. The play is about families, faith and the nature of miracles. Set primarily in a Tim Hortons in Nova Scotia it had a little romance, a little comedy, a little music and some thought-provoking scenes.  

Dave is watching NCAA basketball and the Jets game tonight, while I work on writing projects. We are hoping for a Skype date with our grandson. Dave has made us mini-pizzas for supper. Looking forward to watching the Good Wife later tonight. Tomorrow I’ve got a workshop at the art gallery and in the evening I’ll attend the Dialogue series sponsored by the Manitoba Writers Guild with Dianne Warren and Joan Thomas. 

It’s been a nice Sunday. 

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Filed under Family, Religion, Retirement

The Age of Hope

Several months ago a magazine editor asked me to write a book review. I could choose Dora Dueck’s What You Get At Home or David Bergen’s The Age of Hope.  I hadn’t read either at the time and the editor knowing about my Steinbach roots, seemed surprised I opted for Dueck’s book since Bergen’s is partially set in my hometown.

 david bergen age of hopeI didn’t choose The Age of Hope, because while David Bergen is an excellent writer, crafting unique protagonists and memorable scenes with his well-chosen prose, I tend to prefer books where I can connect with the characters and in the past, I have rarely identified with the people who populate Bergen’s novels.  His stories make me sad and often make life seem hopeless.

 I have now read both books. Dueck’s collection of short stories was a delight. I enjoyed her strong female characters and evocative writing. But in contrast to the other David Bergen books I have read The Age of Hope drew me in completely. I came to really care about Hope Koop and I simply couldn’t put her story down. I’m trying to figure out why.

Maybe it is because I knew the woman on whom the main character is based. I went to school with her children and lived in Steinbach when she did. David Bergen says in a National Post interview that the heroine in The Age of Hope is based on his mother-in-law Doris Loewen. He does make it clear his character Hope Koop who lives in a fictional place called Eden, took on a life of her own and in some ways she became quite different from his mother-in-law. However, like Doris, Hope was born in 1930 and married a man who owned a car dealership in a rural community that he eventually lost in a financial crisis, thus precipitating a move to Winnipeg.

Perhaps the book engaged me so thoroughly because there were many things in it that reminded me of Steinbach, like Hope’s home on Reimer Avenue, the Holdeman Church where her parents’ funerals were held, and the fact she did her grocery shopping at Penner Foods.  I was always looking for recognizable people, places, situations and events in the story.

Another thing that intrigued me was how Hope wanted to be an independent woman, someone with a role and interests other than that of housewife and mother. She tries to learn Russian, enter law school and read great novels, anything to give her an identity of her own.  Hope made me appreciate how fortunate I was just a generation later to have the opportunity to not only be a wife and mother but have a full-time career and pursue personal interests, as well as serve on boards and committees in Steinbach. This was something few women of Hope’s generation were free to do in the community. 

I was also pleased that in the last part of the book Hope is afforded a measure of contentment. During her life, she has struggled with mental health, experienced poverty and her children have lives that are unconventional and often hard for her to understand.  She has been prevented from having a meaningful relationship with her grandchildren. Yet in the last years of her life, she finally has some joy. She gains the courage to come to the defence of a co-worker and a cousin in an abusive relationship.  She travels to France and revels in her freedom after her husband dies. She even has a brief romance.  The Age Of Hope did not leave me feeling hopeless.

 what you get at home dora dueck If you haven’t read The Age of Hope or What You Get At Home I can recommend them both. They have also both been nominated for Manitoba Book Awards.  

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What Will Our Grandchildren Think?

What will our grandchildren find it hard to believe about our generation? 

Photo by Irina Iriser on

 When I first started teaching it was perfectly permissible for people to smoke in public places. The faculty lounge at the Winnipeg school where I was a kindergarten teacher was usually blue with smoke. Sometimes the only seat empty at the table was across from a colleague who favoured cigars. I’d eat my meal with tobacco smoke wafting over my food and into my nose and mouth. When I tell that story to the university education students I mentor now they find it almost impossible to believe. “Teachers smoked on the school grounds? Incredible!”

I was teaching a high school Sunday school class and shared a story with my students about how decades before our congregation went through the process of deciding whether we would allow divorced people to get married to their second spouse in our church. The adolescents in my class couldn’t believe the church they attended had once disciplined divorced people who remarried. They were hard-pressed to accept the fact our church members could have ever been so judgmental.

I remember reading the biography of Martin Luther King to a group of ten-year-olds and they just couldn’t believe the story was true. “People were actually refused service at a restaurant because of the colour of their skin?’ they asked.  “Kids of different races went to separate schools and used their own drinking fountains and had special seats on a bus?” they questioned shaking their heads. They insisted the story must be fictional.

 When I was a teenager I read one of my grandmother’s journals and discovered she had only been able to vote in an election for the first time when she was twenty-five years old because up until then women in Saskatchewan did not have the right to vote. I couldn’t believe it!

I was even more shocked to find out that at the time of her wedding my grandmother was still considered her husband’s property, could not legally own property herself or earn her own income. Later she was not even considered the legal guardian of her children, my grandfather was. I was a young woman growing up at the height of the women’s liberation movement, and my grandmother’s lack of human rights seemed so unenlightened to me.

When I think of how ideas about what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable, what is civilized and uncivilized have changed in just two generations I wonder sometimes what our grandchildren will find hard to believe about us.

Will it be that ……

people had books and magazines printed on actual paper

women did the majority of child care and housework

gay and lesbian couples didn’t have the right to be legally married and adopt children in some places 

there were people who didn’t believe climate change was a real problem

animals were treated cruelly and not recognized as intelligent beings

there was a great disparity between rich and poor in the world instead of everyone sharing resources equally

private citizens were allowed to own guns

some people believed their religious faith was the only right and acceptable one

we used some of the earth’s precious resources to travel around the world simply for pleasure

What will our grandchildren find it hard to believe about our generation? If we knew would we live our lives differently?

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Filed under Education, History, Reflections

The Aviator’s Wife

aviator wifeBefore I read The Aviator’s Wife  by Melanie Benjamin I knew only three things about Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I knew she had been married to Charles Lindbergh, the legendary pilot who completed a historic flight from New York to Paris in 1927. I knew that her little son had been kidnapped and killed. Finally I knew she had been a writer. I studied a beautiful passage from her book Gift From the Sea with my high school English students.

After reading Melanie Benjamin’s historical novel I’ve learned a great deal more about Anne Lindbergh.  I didn’t know………..She was an accomplished pilot in her own right. She flew over 40,000 miles with her husband acting as his co-pilot, navigator and radio operator. They surveyed the continent charting routes for commercial airlines. In 1931 she and Charles traveled in a single-engine plane from Canada to Alaska to Japan and China. Together they explored all five continents by air. Anne was also the first licensed woman glider pilot in the United States.  History books rarely mention her contributions to air travel and even her own children were unaware of it till they were adults. 

Besides her oldest son who was kidnapped and killed Anne was a mother to five other children, three boys and two girls.  She raised these children largely on her own because her husband was rarely home and in fact unbeknownst to Anne, Charles had three mistresses in Germany with whom he fathered seven other children.  Although Gift From the Sea, is her most well-known book Anne was the author of eleven others. Her husband Charles won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography The Spirit of St. Louis however the author of The Aviator’s Wife Melanie Benjamin suggests that Anne did a great deal of the writing and editing of the book and it was as much her book as her husband’s. 

Anne was from a well-known family. Her father Dwight was the American ambassador to Mexico and a United States senator. Her mother was a poet and teacher and served as the president of the prestigious Smith College. 

Before World War II Anne and Charles visited Germany and Charles professed admiration for Nazi Germany.  Later he became a strong advocate for keeping America out of the war against Germany.  Some felt he was anti- Semitic. Although Anne publicly supported her husband, in her diary she wrote about her ‘profound sense of grief’ about the stance he was taking. 

I highly recommend The Aviator’s Wife. It made me curious enough to do some research of my own about Anne Morrow and made me want to re-read her Gift From the Sea. GiftFromTheSeaCover

“Don’t wish me happiness
I don’t expect to be happy all the time…
It’s gotten beyond that somehow.
Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor.
I will need them all.” 

Anne Morrow Lindbergh- Gift From the Sea

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Filed under Books, History, People

I Had My Toes Read

Last week I had a toe reading. My sister arranged it along with a pedicure as a special treat for me.  It was certainly an interesting experience. 

Our professional toe reader was a lively, dark-haired middle-aged woman who said she had been reading toes for eight years. Apparently our toes are always changing. Our reader told us she has been photographing her toes annually for many years and she is always surprised at how much her toes change in just one year.  She encouraged us to photograph our toes too. 

She emphasized that she wasn’t a fortune-teller, but would be suggesting how our toes told the story of our life, a story we could learn from, and how our toes could suggest ways we might want to live and act in the future.  

We learned our first toe was our  metal or destiny toe, the second our air or communication toe, the middle toe our fire toe or action toe, our fourth toe our water toe or relationship toe and our fifth toe was our earth toe or prosperity and abundance toe.

The toe reader sat on the floor and we sat in chairs and placed our toes on a white towel in front of her. She told us the toes on our left foot represented our inner life, while our right foot toes told the story of our outer life. 

My big toe and second toe on my right foot didn’t touch the ground and that means I’m ready for adventure.  The toe reader did correctly determine from examining my toes that I am a writer, that my family is important to me, that I believe in God and that I have lived abroad.  But she also said I wasn’t opinionated enough and I don’t think that’s true.  

Her main piece of advice for me after reading my toes was to ‘let go.’  I need to stop worrying about how situations in life will resolve themselves and just let go and get on with things believing they will be resolved in the best possible way without so much anxiety on my part. 

My sister and I had a good laugh about some of the things the toe reader had to say about our past and future, but she also gave us some interesting suggestions to think about. 

I am very curious about whether my toes actually change over time the way the toe reader insists they do! I just might have to start photographing my toes on regular basis to find out!

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Filed under Arizona, Health, New Experiences

Sometimes I Think I’m In Steinbach

In Arizona with my Steinbach friends, Margaret, Marlene, Helen and Barb

In Arizona with my Steinbach friends, Margaret, Marlene, Helen and Barb

Sometimes I think I’m in Steinbach even though we are spending a couple of months in Phoenix.   Of course in Steinbach I wouldn’t be golfing, swimming outdoors, going hiking in shorts or accompanying my husband on bike rides everyday. But as far as the people we spend time with here in the sunny southwest, well they aren’t so different than the ones we see the rest of the year. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say we know close to a hundred people from Steinbach who spend at least part of the winter in Arizona.

A few weeks ago my husband golfed with four gentlemen he hits the links with at the Steinbach Fly-In on a regular basis in summer. They all happened to be in the Phoenix area at the same time and so Dave arranged a reunion golf game and supper at our place. While we were out on the patio checking out the star studded sky one of the group started singing The Red River Valley and most of us chimed in for a quick four- part harmony rendition of a song that reminded us of home.

One night we were invited to friends who own a trailer in a Mesa resort and arrived to find four other Steinbach couples seated around the supper table.  The Winnipeg Jets happened to be playing hockey and so we had the television on during the evening in order to keep an eye on our home team. The dinner conversation topics included the opening of the new Walmart in Steinbach, the closing of Extra Foods, the education career of a south-east resident who had just passed away, an editorial in the Carillon and yes I’ll admit it, a bit of well-intentioned gossip about various Steinbach residents we all knew.

Our Steinbach lawyer, who also happens to be a good friend, arrived in Phoenix with his wife and spent nearly a week with us. We had a great time touring the area and capturing the unique Arizona landscape with our camera lenses. Several evenings however they were invited out to dinner by Steinbach people they knew who own homes in Phoenix.

Another reunion happened when we hosted two of my husband’s former Steinbach Junior High colleagues and their spouses. Both couples have been wintering in Arizona regularly over the last decade. One woman told me after several years of constant socializing they had come to realize if they wanted to have a relaxing vacation they simply wouldn’t be able to get together with all their Steinbach acquaintances during their months in Arizona.

What draws so many people from Steinbach here?  I believe it is a combination of things. The warm weather is certainly one of them. I know after several falls on icy streets during my daily Manitoba walks it was a pleasure to arrive in Arizona and exercise without worrying about freezing a body part or being injured because of slippery conditions. The low real estate costs are another bonus. Although slightly higher this year, you can still purchase a large modern home here at prices that would be the envy of new home buyers in Steinbach. I think people like the change of scenery too. Mountains, saguaro cacti, deserts and mesquite and palo verde trees offer an attractive alternative to the flat prairie with its spruces and birch. And perhaps another selling feature of the Phoenix area is the fact that even though you are not in Steinbach, you can still get together with many of your Steinbach friends and acquaintances. Your social life need never miss a beat.

* This is one of the Carillon columns I wrote during our two months in Arizona. 

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Visiting Old Scottsdale

old scottsdaleWe made an impromptu trip to Old Scottsdale today when the spring training ball game we wanted to attend was sold out. I didn’t have either of my cameras with me so I decided to try taking photos with my I-pod Touch. They turned out better than I thought they would. old scottsdaleOld Scottsdale is a bit of a tourist trap. There are lots of shops and galleries and restaurants catering to people looking for western-style souvenirs. I did make a couple good finds for my children’s Easter baskets, but we mostly just wandered the streets peeking into the various stores. IMG_0035There were some high-end art galleries I enjoyed browsing through and I even saw a couple of paintings that might have worked on our blank apartment wall, but they were out of our price range. This metal piece of a horse reminded me of the style of Joe Fafard’s sculpture Between Dog and Wolf, which is in Winnipeg. helen and winfield scottVisiting the museum in Old Scottsdale I  learned that this suburb of Phoenix was named after Winfield and Helen Scott. Winfield was a former army chaplain and Civil War veteran who settled in the Salt River Valley of Arizona and along with his brother became a successful farmer. tent house scottsdale musuemApparently Winfield and Helen welcomed people who were ill, down on their luck or needed a fresh start to pitch tents on their property and live there till they got back on their feet. The inside of one of these tent homes is on display in the Scottsdale Museum which is housed in the first Scottsdale school-house. These tent houses had a wood floor and roof and were wood one-third the way up the wall. The final two-thirds of the wall was made of canvas. The canvas could be rolled up in summer to let in a breeze. IMG_0025There were lots of photos of the students who attended the school-house and some old artifacts from school days gone by, like typewriters, stone water coolers and chalkboards. The museum was free and the guides were friendly. musician in old scottsdaleThere were musicians entertaining on the streets of Old Scottsdale and we stopped to listen to a few. praying monk restuarant scottsdaleBy far the highlight of the day was our stop for drinks and appetizers at a restaurant called The Praying Monk.  We sat out in the sun on the patio. We shared the appetizers which were a real treat- spicy fried cauliflower, barbecued brussels sprouts, hummus with red pepper dip, orange spiced calamari and mini corn dogs with tangy mustard dip and greens. 

I’m happy I saw Old Scottsdale before leaving Arizona but probably one visit was enough. 

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